Having Successful Dialogues Across Cultures: Why Context Counts

Published: Jul 05, 2022
Modified: Apr 09, 2024

From American Management Association

In just about every work environment, the practice of having dialogues is vital to improving efficiency, fixing problems, sparking innovation, and maintaining high levels of employee performance and morale. A dialogue is more than a discussion, where coworkers talk together about a project, goal, or challenge, drawing on their experiences and veering off on tangents. A dialogue is also different from a debate, where individual stakeholders aim to make a winning case, based on facts and logic, and listen to others’ points of view with a critical ear on finding flaws. A dialogue focuses on exploring alternative perspectives through genuine curiosity and respectful questioning, seeking shared understanding and common ground, and opening up possibilities for new solutions.

As a manager, fostering dialogues among your team members and other collaborators is crucial but rarely easy—especially in a global business world and within a diverse workforce. Dialogues tend to be complicated by cultural differences. When people of different cultures interact with one another, misunderstandings can occur. Even when unintentional, misunderstandings often provoke tensions and mistrust, derailing your best efforts at maintaining positive and productive communication among your employees.

To help you mitigate the impact of such cross-cultural minefields, if not avoid them altogether, the experts at American Management Association (AMA) focus on a key factor: understanding the role of context. In this case, context specifically refers to the cultural mindset through which a message is delivered. There are two main types: low context and high context.  

First, it’s important to recognize your own cultural context. In the United States, Canada, Australia, the U.K., Switzerland, Germany, and most Western countries, companies do business in a low-context culture. Hallmarks of a low-context business culture include:

  • A priority on independence, individualism, and outspokenness.
  • Communication is expected to be straightforward, concise, and efficient.
  • Non-verbal cues, protocols, and rituals are seldom relied on—what matters is what’s said. 
  • Word choice is extremely important. Words are precise and meant to be taken literally.
  • There is little to no relationship-building before doing business—people speak and stand on their own merits.

In contrast, consider the high-context cultures of Japan, China, Russia, the Arab nation, Mexico, and European countries such as France, Spain, and Italy. Hallmarks of a high-context business culture include:

  • An emphasis on collectivism and the concept of “face,” a sense of respectability tied to and dependent on others.
  • Communication is more unspoken than explicit, and what’s spoken is more formal.
  • A speaker’s meaning is often conveyed through body language, facial expressions, and other non-verbal cues.
  • Introductions and relationship-building occur before business is discussed.

As a manager accustomed to low-context cultural norms, it’s critical to be sensitive to the differences in communication styles. Invest time and care in listening to and observing employees from high-context cultures to pick up on subtle information. Avoid showing favoritism toward team members who share your low-context habits. Strive to maintain balance between the two styles. Displaying either too much or too little emotion, whether positive or negative, than what is customary in a culturally diverse team can have a significant impact on the success of not only dialogues, but also teamwork and business results.   

Effective cross-cultural communication in a diverse workplace becomes easier with practice—but as in everything, it all starts with awareness.

About AMA

American Management Association (AMA) is globally recognized as a leader in professional development. For nearly 100 years, it has helped millions of people bring about positive change in their performance in order to improve results. AMA’s learn-by-doing instructor-led methods, extensive content, and flexible learning formats are proven effective—and constantly evolve to meet the changing needs of individuals and organizations. To learn more, visit www.amanet.org